Lent is about giving stuff up and generally being miserable, right?
No. Lent is about returning to delight.
Lent invites us back into the loving arms of God. Lent is about confronting all the life-draining ways we seek cheap substitutes for God’s love and grace and mercy, and chucking them and turning to the Real Stuff. It’s about giving ourselves the gift of receiving the love we crave. No matter what we may “give up for Lent,” what we’re really giving up is the habit of withholding God’s love from ourselves by seeking it elsewhere. We give up junk to receive treasure. But, yeah, sometimes the giving up is hard. Because we’re addicted. But there’s life on the other side.
Sin is thinking (or acting as if) we’re on our own.
There’s only one thing, one Holy Being (which we nickname “God”), and we’re part of it. But we don’t get it. The part of our consciousness (actually mostly unconscious) that we call our ego is at work, as it should be, continually asking, “What’s me, and not me? How do I protect what’s me?” The trouble is, we believe it. We believe and act as if we’re our own little selves, individual physical units, contained in and defined by our bodies. (Paul calls this “living according to the flesh.”) This self-centeredness is sin. But God is infinite; there is nothing outside God. We are part of God. We are emanations of divine love, members of the Body of Christ, made one in the one Spirit. To trust this, to willingly be part of God, is what Paul calls “living in the Spirit.”
Our sinfulness doesn’t mean we’re “bad.” It means we’re afraid. It means we’re inherently self-centered. We don’t know how to trust God, and trust our belonging in God. We focus on the survival of our bodies and possessions and outward appearances, and not on the life of God within us. The only cure for separation is connection. The only cure for fear is love. The only cure for sin is grace.
Righteousness is being in harmony with God.
Sin is being out of tune. Righteousness is being in tune. It does not mean “being right.” In fact it’s the opposite. There are two religions in the world: the religion of being right and the religion of being in love. In the religion of being right you figure out how the universe works and play by those rules and succeed (defined as “righteousness”), or fail to get it right and suffer. The religion of being right is inherently selfish, inimical to love. In the religion of being in love you allow yourself to be loved as a gift, and in gratitude pass that love on to others because you’re all part of the same love. Righteousness is allowing yourself to be loved, and to become loving. The two religions are incompatible. If you follow all the rules sooner or later you’ll hurt somebody. And in the religion of being in love if you always do what is loving sooner or later you’ll break a rule, or fail to “get it right” for yourself, and suffer for it. You can’t practice both religions at the same time; we’re always choosing one or the other. Jesus quotes Hosea 6.6 (twice!) and says “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mt. 9.13. See also Mt. 12.7).
The religion of being right is the religion of our sin. We don’t trust God’s love but instead believe we have to deserve God’s favor by being good enough. We achieve righteousness. Even our attempt to be righteous is sinful. Instead we’re invited to allow God, in love, to make us righteous, to bring us into harmony with God in loving mercy. Despite our waywardness, God, out of pure love not our merit, says, “We’re good.” God’s love makes us righteous.
God’s love saves us from the life-sapping power of our own selfishness.
Because in our sin we cut ourselves off from life, seeking to ensure for ourselves the life that can come only from God, sin is death—that’s the bad news. But the good news is God gives us life anyway, life that can’t be taken from us—not even by sin or death. This is the gift of eternal life. We disconnect ourselves from God, but Gods stays connected anyway. This is not anything we can affect: we are unable to save ourselves from our own self-centeredness. It is a gift of pure grace.
Salvation doesn’t mean going to heaven after we die. Salvation means being rescued from the selfishness that destroys our lives—our distrust of God, our alienation from the divine breathing Spirit in us that is our our true and only source of life. God overcomes all this. It is not the result of our effort, but God’s grace. The “heaven” we go to is not the afterlife, but the paradise of being in harmony with God.
Sin is being out of tune with God. Repentance is tuning up.
Repentance is listening to God so we can sing in tune. Even Jesus needed to listen; notice how often he goes off to pray. So we attend to the work of repentance: the work of turning from what diminishes life toward what restores life: turning away from sin, toward God. Repentance is not what we do to be saved, but what we do because we have been saved. Repentance is a three-fold process: being honest about our brokenness, opening ourselves to God’s grace, and allowing ourselves to be transformed. (Followers of John Wesley will recognize the prevenient, justifying and sanctifying nature of God’s grace.) With Jesus in the desert we face our temptations, the ways our desire for life get distorted into desire for power, security and belonging in sources other than God. We confront our ego and its fears and desires, our self-centeredness and its consequences; and practice letting go of those false fears and demands. We confess not only our individual sins but our collective sin, the systems of injustice that our sin produces and sustains. We acknowledge that we are dust in need of Spirit.
God’s response is not punishment, but grace. God’s judgment is not a verdict, but a prescription. When we fail to bear fruit fruit God does not punish us but gives us what we need to bear fruit (see Luke 13.1-9).
So our focus is not on our sin, but on God’s grace. For only God’s love cures the sickness that is our sin. Repentance is accepting the love we’ve been resisting, and giving God’s forgiveness a chance to sink in. We practice breathing-in God’s love.
And we invite and allow that grace to change us, to inhabit us, to rule us. Repentance is about turning to the divine life that is there inside us that we’ve been neglecting. When we let go of our self-contentedness and accept God’s love, our hearts are changed: we want to live in harmony with that love and grace. We allow ours old selves to die so God can re-create us, animated by the Spirit instead of our sin. We are re-born. This is the true nature of resurrection: not a comeback, but a complete new beginning.
Lent is a season of forty days of repentance and purification in preparation for Easter. We pray for the gift of repentance through fasting, prayer and works of love, that we may be healed and transformed according to the grace of God. Remembering that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we place our trust in God alone for life. Beholding the cross of Christ, we enter into the mystery of our salvation. Giving our lives to God, we die and are raised to new life. Our guiding images in Lent are Jesus’ sojourn in the desert facing his temptations, and his journey toward the cross
We are ashes (dust) plus Spirit. Remember that.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The ashes represent the frailty of our faith—they are made from last year’s Palm Sunday palms. As with anything we loved but have lost, ashes represent the sorrow we feel upon facing our sinfulness, our regret over having hurt ourselves, our neighbor, God, and all Creation. (It may seem odd to speak of God being hurt, but that’s the very meaning of love—and the reality of the cross.) In the beginning God took dust up from the ground and breathed life (breath, spirit) into it, and it became a living human. We are dust and spirit. Of course what we see and touch seems most real to us, so we believe in the dust more than the Spirit. Ashes remind us that we are made of dust, dependent on God’s grace. And they remind us of our mortality. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The future is not guaranteed: now is the time to let go of our illusions about ourselves (burning them to ashes) and to live the authentic life God has given us. Mindful that life is short and precious, we devote ourselves to using every moment we are given for the sake of love, to give and receive God’s grace while we can. We place ashes on ourselves as a sign that we are Creatures and God is Creator; that we are to die to sin, and that it is not our efforts, but God’s grace, that redeems us. Remembering that in Creation God formed a human from the dust of the ground and breathed life into it to create a living human, we present ourselves as dust to God, that God may breathe God’s Spirit into us and create us anew.
What saves us is not Jesus’ suffering but his forgiveness.
The cross is the cost of love. In Jesus on the cross we see God’s suffering love in the face of our sin and violence. Jesus did not die “so that God could forgive us;” God forgave us already. Jesus died because we killed him. Jesus suffered the consequences of our sin, our injustice, but he did not “pay for our sins:” sin can’t be bought off. To say we have been “purchased with a price” doesn’t mean Jesus “bought” something. Our salvation is a gift, not a transaction—though it costs God. God did not arrange for Jesus to be killed; that was our doing. God didn’t “plan” the cross. Jesus didn’t set out to die; he set out to do justice, at any cost to himself. Jesus opposed unjust religious, political, economic and social systems of oppression—and the powerful struck back. In his death we see evil exposed. We see God as the victim of all injustice and oppression (“whatever you do to the least of these…”) And we see God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our evil. Jesus suffered our judgment, and brought God’s judgment in return: God’s absolute, eternal, infinite love and forgiveness.
Our sin is that we don’t trust God’s love, and think instead that we have to be good enough to deserve God’s favor. The crucifixion embodies our judgment that Jesus didn’t “get it right.” God’s judgment is mercy on one who didn’t get it right, because God’s way is to be loving, not to be right, or to demand that we get it right. God’s mercy overturns our judgment.
In the cross we see the scandal of God’s vulnerability with us. God doesn’t demand suffering; God suffers with us and even because of us—to stay with us. In the cross God lives out the reality of being in a body, with all the beauty and pain and even mortality that entails: such is the price of incarnation. God suffers with us. In the Cross God absorbs everything that separates us from God: our fear and violence, our shame, our judgment, and our death― and God embraces us, with nothing in between. In the cross we exercise the power of death and violence and God receives it and transforms it, overcoming even the power of death with love. Because Jesus trusts God absolutely, and serves God fully in the cause of justice and healing, he is not afraid to face violence. Having already given his life to God, Jesus enters into life that is infinite and can’t be taken from him (this, not the afterlife, is the meaning of eternal life). On Good Friday the Resurrected One was crucified.
To contemplate the cross is to behold our sin, God’s grace, and our calling all at once. To take up your cross is to willingly surrender your life to God, die to your old self, and allow yourself to be raised—re-created—as a new person, like dust that God breathes new life into. And to take up your cross is to be willing to suffer for the sake of love and justice.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken heart.
Lent is not only about repentance; it’s also a time to lament. The Ashes of Ash Wednesday evoke not only our sin and our mortality; they also speak of our sorrow. We are sorry for our sinfulness; and we are sorry for the suffering of the world. We join Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem. Repentance is never just a personal thing; it’s a communal movement. Our whole society needs to repent of our injustice. To begin, we need to lament, to let our hearts be broken by the suffering of the world, with Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Lk. 19.41-42). It’s easier to make pronouncements about the world’s problems than to stand (or sit) with the people who suffer because of those problems. Let them have a voice in your confession and repentance: those who suffer because of racism, poverty, violence, sexism, heterosexism, consumerism, mass incarceration, the climate crisis, the assault on democracy… Of course the list goes on and on, and you don’t want your worship to be nothing but grievance. But don’t overlook our need to lament and grieve with those who are the crucified ones among us.
Lent: Living beyond death
The story of Lent is the salvation story. Salvation doesn’t mean going to heaven after we die. It means being rescued from the power of self-centeredness that rules our lives. Just as the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, we are slaves to sin and death. Sin works in us in ways we can’t seem to control, and death creates bounds for our lives that we can’t escape. But just as Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus delivers us from slavery to our self-centeredness. In his death and resurrection we see the grace that sets us free from the power that sin and our fear of death have over us. Jesus leads us to life in Infinite Love.
During Lent the scripture lessons will take us through the unfolding of death and new life. We go with Jesus into the desert to face our temptations, and then onward toward the cross—which is really toward resurrection.
Year A: In the garden, Adam and Eve show us the power of our desires. With Nicodemus we ponder the mystery of being “born again.” Abram models what it’s like to allow God to change our lives. With the woman at the well we name our thirst for the water of eternal life “gushing up in us,” as miraculous (and dependable) as the water Moses strikes from the rock. With the man born blind we experience transformation so profound that others may not even recognize us. In the raising of Lazarus we behold Jesus’ willingness to walk with us through death to something on the other side, and God’s power to make our lives new. The dry bones will live again. By God’s grace, we learn to live the resurrection life. We are ready for Easter.
Year B: Jesus invites us to take up our cross: to be willing to suffer for the sake of love. He scourges the temple of the religion of being right (in offering sacrifices) and invites us to imagine a temple of love. We contemplate the wisdom of the “foolish” cross, acknowledging that God’s ways aren’t like ours. We give thanks for God’s judgment of light, that we’re saved by grace, as the Son of God is “lifted up” (that is, both exalted and crucified), Jesus reminds us that we are to die as seeds do so that we can bear fruit. By God’s grace, we learn to live the resurrection life. We are ready for Easter.
Year C: Jesus is warned that Herod wants to kill him, but, to paraphrase, “nevertheless he persisted.” In the parable of the fig tree he assures us of God’s grace, not to punish us, but to help us bear fruit. In the parable of the lost sons (they’re both lost; it’s the father who is prodigal, that is, overly generous) Jesus shows us a model of God’s grace. The parable asks us if we’re ready to receive grace despite our feelings we don’t deserve it, or our conviction we do. Mary Magdalene, anointing Jesus, prepares him and us for the cross, which is to prepare us for resurrection. We are ready for Easter.
The Eucharist in Lent
In my Methodist tradition we’re accustomed to celebrating communion once a month. There’s no theological reason for this. It’s just because three centuries ago the only ordained clergy who could preside over the sacrament was a circuit rider who was only in town once a month or so. For most of history, and still in many denominations, the Eucharist is a regular part of weekly worship. If you’re a member of the once-a-month club, I encourage you to consider offering communion weekly during Lent or Easter or both. The Eucharist speaks to Lent: it replicates the meal Jesus shared the day before he surrendered to the cross. It touches on Lenten themes like repentance, grace, transformation, and reconciliation. Of course it is a Resurrection meal— but resurrection is what draws us to the cross: the promise that when we give our lives in love God gives us new ones.
See Eucharistic Responses for eleven sets of prayer responses (Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation and Amen) set to familiar hymn tunes appropriate for Lent. Two of them include Table Songs, hymns of invitation to the table.
Lent is also a season for the Kyrie: Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison. (“Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”) See Kyrie, Six Versions, for the traditional words set to original tunes. Some are part of Eucharistic settings.
Lent is about giving stuff up and generally being miserable, right?